Active Recovery: Deloads vs. Low Stress Weeks vs. Pivot Weeks

So you’ve been training hard for several weeks in a row, you’re in a groove, and seeing great progress.

However, you’re starting to notice your fatigue is building up to a point where you are no longer prepared for your next training session. You’re more sore than normal, performance could be taking a dip, maybe you’re even finding it mentally challenging to get yourself to the gym to train in the first place?

Time for an active recovery week.

While it may seem counterintuitive, you don’t want to go full couch potato to recoup. An entire week of sitting around may very well leave you feeling worse off than when you started! Instead, you want to shoot for a week of adjusted programming. One in which, you are getting good physical activity in, retaining skill in your chosen movements, and keeping blood flowing in the body to aid in your recovery. Just, you won’t be taxing your body quite like you would with your normal training

Most lifter’s have been indoctrinated that this means they take half the weight off the bar and continue as normal. I’m here to tell you there’s more to programming an active recovery week than just “do X lift at 50%” and you may find you like the options outside of the standard “deload week” even more.

Here’s the typical styles of programming you’ll see when it comes to those coveted recovery weeks!

(For more on strength programming check out this article!)

1. Deloads:

Deloads are what most people are familiar with when it comes to active recovery weeks in strength programming.

Ironically, it’s also the style of recovery week I think should be used the least. 

Deloads are typically characterized by a drastic decrease in intensity when it comes to your lifts. So where you may have been training in the 65-95% range, you are now doing lifts in the 50-60% range for a week. Usually, lifts will stay the same, reps will stay the same (some programs may increase reps for a deload week), basically everything stays the same barring that change in intensity.

This sounds great on paper. Little mental reprieve from heavy weights, the decreased load should give your body time to recover…

Two problems…

1. Lifting heavy weight is a skill, one that detrains rather quickly 2. Deloads decrease intensity to such a drastic degree you may find yourself asking “what’s the point?” 

Problem 1: From a performance perspective, yes, lifting at 50% for just one week could make the following week feel a bit…funky. No you haven’t suddenly lost muscle or anything crazy like that, you just spent an entire week not practicing your skill of lifting heavy weights.

Unfortunately fitness can be infuriating like that. Spend months on months practicing to get better, just to lose it in a week.

It is what it is.

So while yes, you may feel nice and refreshed after a week of lifting at 50-60%, you may also come back the following week and feel a bit shakey on form, or suddenly that “easy” 4 plate squat feels a lot heavier on your back than normal. It’s just your body trying to “remember” how to lift heavy weight again. This feeling will of course go away with a couple of regular intensity training sessions, but I believe you can ultimately skip this problem in the first place with other recovery week options.

Problem 2: Deloads are so boring they’ll have you in the gym teetering on the brink of existential crisis.

“What am I even doing here?”, “Is there a point to all of this?”, “If a man squats a set at 50% did he even squat at all?”

When it comes straight down to it, deloads are just you going through the motions. The intensity decrease is so drastic that, maybe you’ll break a sweat, but you’ll also be asking yourself if there weren’t more important things you could be doing with your time right now.

It’s not that I believe a deload week is necessarily wrong or won’t work. It’s more so that the other options on the list will net you the same result and are simply more enjoyable than a deload.

That being said what I do end up using deloads for is competition prep. That very last week before any strength competition will most resemble a deload week. You may have a practice single at the start of the week at decent intensity for someone like a powerlifter, but everything else will be very “deload-esque” and that’s where I believe deloads will always trump the other two options on the list.

2. Low Stress Weeks:

Low stress weeks are the anti-deload week.

Where a deload week deals in drastically reducing your intensity, a low stress week will instead drastically reduce volume.

So where your programming might have you doing 5 sets of 6 reps @ RPE 8 on a normal week, your low stress week might just be 2 sets of 6 reps, but still at RPE 8.

This gives you the best of both world’s. The reduced volume means your body won’t have much stress to deal with in terms of recovering, and the normal intensity means you won’t be questioning why you even came to the gym today. Heavy lifting, and active recovery…can’t ask for much more than that.

Low stress week’s are my go to for anyone remotely competitive with lifting, or who really care about their strength numbers. They give you the mental and physical reprieve you need, but still keep you in your training groove. Because you don’t end up messing with your intensity, you don’t end up loosing any skill in lifting heavy weights. Effectively you skip that brief “awkard period” you may encounter right after a deload week.

This means you jump right back into your training like nothing ever happened, fresh and ready to go. Allowing you to string along weeks and weeks of solid strength training.

All that being said, I will acknowledge that low stress weeks are still the most “mentally challenging” of the active recovery weeks. You’re still lifting heavy here, this isn’t just “going through the motions.” If you haven’t been as interested in your lifting sessions recently, or resistance training has been mentally wearing down on you I’d suggest you to the third choice in this list.

3. Pivot Weeks:

Pivot weeks are the factory reset of lifting.

If you feel like you’re in a rut, you’re in a mentally rough spot, or you’re tired of seeing “squat, bench, and deadlift” on your program over and over. Try a pivot week.

Unfortunately, I can’t give you a “true” definition for what a pivot week is, because there isn’t one. Basically, it’s up for interpretation.

The main idea behind a pivot week is you completely flip the script on however you currently train. The more obscure the better. You’re shooting to pick movements/ movement variations that you don’t normally train or just want to try out, as well as rep schemes that you don’t normally use.

Even better if you can pick exercises where you don’t really know where your numbers are at so you can completely take the mental side out of lifting and just…train.

I love pivot weeks because they are a simple reminder that at the end of the day training is supposed to be fun. As lifters we can sometimes get too caught up in chasing gains, in chasing numbers, trying to be “optimized” on all levels of training, that we don’t realize we aren’t even enjoying training.

Now, ironically, people can get stressed out by the idea of a pivot week because of it’s inherent lack of structure. That’s the entire point. It’s supposed to be loose and fun. Pick new movements, choose your rep scheme, train hard (think RPE 6-9), and don’t overthink it, that’s all you need to know.

Try out new movements, try out exercises you’ve always wanted to do “but never had the time for”, try out variations you may want to use in your future programming, everything goes. If you really need a mental reset from lifting you can even change a pivot week into an entire pivot block, more on that here.

 

Matt Molloy

Matt Molloy

I'm a graduate the University of Pittsburgh with a major in Exercise Science. I’m a local guy (North Penn) and athletics has dominated my life. I've led teams in basketball, baseball, soccer, golf and my passion, long distance running. I've been strength training for 6 years with a focus in power-lifting but have recently stretched to strongman since joining the pride here at the Den. When I’m not in the gym I enjoy, spending time with my friends, music, and relaxing and playing some video games.